23 September 2019
Image credit: Helena Bui
In the pop music arena, stars burn bright but not always for long. What does longevity in a pop career look like? How may today’s pop sensation transform herself into a career musician? These are the questions that drove up-and-coming Vietnamese pop artiste Helena Bui Lan Huong to return to school to pursue her second Bachelor’s degree.
Helena’s decision may have appeared counter-intuitive to most. After all, her star had been on the rise in her native country of Vietnam, having graduated top of her class with a degree in Classical Opera from the Vietnam National Academy of Music. She also had a burgeoning television career, having been featured as a guest mentor for Vietnam Idol Kids as well as an acting role in the Vietnamese adaptation of Glee. Leaving Vietnam to enroll in LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore meant forgoing some of the opportunities that were just beginning to open up in her career.
Helena’s unusual decision has been vindicated by how her career has soared to new heights during her time in the BA(Hons) Music programme. During her second year in the programme, she released her debut full-length album in 2018, which went on to sweep every New Artist Award at all the major Vietnamese music award shows. The album was also nominated for Album of the Year at the the Cống Hiến Music Awards – Vietnam’s equivalent of the Grammy Awards.
Helena receiving an award at the Làn Sóng Xanh Music Awards
Buoyed by her recent success, Helena reflects on how LASALLE has contributed to her success.
A jazz programme that pushes genre boundaries
Coming from a classical background, Helena was keen to explore other musical genres. “In Vietnam, we don’t have an official jazz vocal training centre,” Helena explains. “That's why I came to LASALLE to study.”
The jazz specialism in LASALLE’s BA(Hons) Music programme was established in 2005 by current Head of School, Dr Timothy O’Dwyer. At the time of its establishment, it was the first of its kind at tertiary level in Singapore, and it remains one of the few specialist jazz courses in the region.
The forward-looking nature of the course also appealed to her. Even though students in the BA(Hons) Music programme specialise in specific genres (contemporary classical, jazz, electronic music, popular music and composition), the specialties are united by a programme-wide focus on improvisation and technology.
So while jazz students are taught the fundamentals of harmonic improvisation within the jazz tradition, they are also encouraged to use these skills to develop their own identity within the style, either by exploring freer forms of jazz or by fusing technology and indigenous music traditions.
Helena believes that the encouragement to think beyond what jazz is to what jazz could be will help her stay ahead of the curve. “Ten to 20 years later, artistes will not just sing but also need a lot of knowledge to manage the daily changes in popular music trends. If one day jazz played with electronic sounds becomes popular, I believe I can still keep up.”
Connections to a network of alumni and industry professionals
Helena is also grateful to how LASALLE introduced her to current creative collaborators, Namie Rasman and Jeff Hue. Namie and Jeff are just two of the many successful alumni of the School of Contemporary Music who have gone on to become industry stalwarts. Namie is the lead singer of electronic band Canvas Conversations and Jeff is an established electronic music producer who has worked with some of Singapore’s best indie acts such as Gentle Bones, Jude Young and Ffion.
Helena is thankful to both for helping with the production of her acclaimed debut album. By collaborating and exchanging ideas, Helena was able to draw on Namie and Jeff’s experience and expertise in electronic music, further stretching her sonic boundaries.
Both Namie and Jeff served as producers on Helena’s debut album, with Jeff arranging many of Helena’s original dream pop compositions on the album. The album’s distinct vibe drew widespread acclaim and opened up further opportunities, including the chance to be featured on the soundtrack of Vietnamese blockbuster The Immortal. Helena’s music has made her a national phenomenon, with the music video clocking 15 million views and the media hailing her ‘The Vietnamese Dream Pop Queen’.
Life after viral fame
Reflecting on her breakout year, Helena believes that her studies have been valuable in her growth as a musician and development of her career. She credits LASALLE for imparting a lot of useful knowledge, not just in her music genre, but also for her entry into the professional music industry.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Helena is already thinking ahead. She wants to continue to grow as an artiste who is adept at all parts of music creation – be it writing, performing or producing. She particularly hopes to continue learning more about music production and recording techniques, which are unique parts of the music curriculum at LASALLE. “By learning more about audio production, I am able to help myself achieve exactly what I want, then I can produce the new music experiences that I am still very eager to create.” Helena said.
The hardworking popstar has new music projects already lined up in Vietnam. “People associate Bui Lan Huong with hard work and high quality so I hope I can keep that going.”
Helena’s trophy shelf